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When Disaster Strikes, This Fort Worth Nonprofit Helps Reconnect Communities

Information Technology Disaster Resource Center
The ITDRC is a volunteer-based nonprofit that helps rebuild phone and Internet connections after natural disasters.

It's been six months since Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast. The Fort Worth-based nonprofit Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC)was among the organizations helping residents in the aftermath, rebuilding internet and phone connections.

The volunteer-based ITDRC has been on the ground during many disasters, from Hurricane Sandy to the explosion in West, Texas. But co-founder Joe Hillis says the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was unlike anything his team has seen before.  

In early February, the ITDRC team returned from its eighth and final trip to the island. 

Interview Highlights: Joe Hillis

On how the organization was founded

There was an initiative about 2003-2004, a tech visionary proposed the creation of a national volunteer base of technical people. I got interested in that, I thought it would be a great retirement gig. I watched it for several years and there was zero traction. When we started seeing the proposals, that each community would have one of these teams, we realized this needed to be at national level so several of us got together and founded this organization.

On what his group saw when they first arrived in Puerto Rico

It was very much lights out most everywhere that they went. We were fortunate enough to get one of the few rental cars available on the island. We immediately went to the state and federal command center to try to understand where the most need was. From there, they kept giving us lists of remote communities we could go to. From there, we had to figure out who had power because our equipment requires some sort of power. Typically, it was whoever had the generator. The first several weeks, [our team] did struggle with power and things like that.

Credit Information Technology Disaster Resource Center
The ITDRC has made eight trips to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck. The organization has an annual budget of $100,000.

On why this was the final trip

We spent more on this particular response than we have on all of our other ones combined this year. It's difficult, I think, for us to neglect some of the other places, for example the California wildfires, where we're working now. For us to throw our entire budget behind Puerto Rico, we just didn't see the public support that would enable us to stay longer. As the cell towers and phone lines come back up, its time for us to start pulling back on some of the stuff we're doing, albeit there's still a lot of need down there.

On whether he's worried people have stopped caring about Puerto Rico

I think because we had these back-to-back events, everybody's kind of numb to it. people are well-intentioned I think, they opened their hearts and their wallets [to Hurricane Harvey victims]. By the time Maria got here, I think people said, "We've given what we're going to give for the year." I don't know that the people don't care about Puerto Rico. I think for a lot of folks [have] tapped out on their giving. 

Interview responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.